U.S., France near deal on Mideast

The United States and France were close to a deal on a Security Council resolution aimed at ending the monthlong conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and could break the diplomatic deadlock at last on Friday. But diplomats said they were still trying to overcome last-minute Lebanese objections to the draft.

Increasingly impatient that diplomacy has taken so long, Russia introduced its own resolution Thursday calling for a blanket 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire in Lebanon. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin sounded an alarm that the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon was reaching “catastrophic” proportions and said it was too urgent for diplomacy to go on much longer.

The Russian resolution also urged “extraordinary diplomatic efforts” for a deal on the U.S.-French draft. Churkin said he hoped his proposal would give them a renewed sense of urgency.

“War is raging in Lebanon and the humanitarian situation is getting catastrophic,” Churkin said. “We hope it will focus minds, it will energize politicians and diplomats,” Churkin said.

More than 800 people have died in the monthlong conflict, hundreds of Lebanese civilians and dozens of Israelis.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton refused to comment directly on the Russian draft, but said it would not be helpful to distract attention from the negotiations on the U.S.-French draft, introduced on Saturday. It seeks a lasting political solution after more than four weeks of fighting that has killed.

Bolton and other diplomats suggested that they were close to a deal after a day of intensive negotiations within the Security Council and with a delegation of Arab leaders. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to head to New York on Friday morning in anticipation of a vote, a senior U.S. official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because her plans had not been made public.

The new proposal appears to eliminate the prospect of a multinational force that would patrol a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon, opting instead to considerably beef up the existing U.N. force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, and to make it more powerful.

Israel Television reported that the latest draft resolution calls for the current 2,000-strong U.N. force in southern Lebanon to be enlarged to 20,000 troops, with Spain, German, Italy and Australia among the new troop contributors.

But Lebanon and its Arab allies balked, saying they want UNIFIL to retain its current, weaker mandate, Security Council diplomats said.

Diplomats and U.S. officials said the issue of how much power to give the U.N.-mandated force was one of two main sticking points with the Lebanese. The other was the timing of the withdrawal of Israeli troops that have occupied the territory with the arrival of 15,000 troops Lebanon has promised to send there.

“We have worked a lot, especially on two points, the force to deploy and the withdrawal of the Israeli forces,” France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said after another round of talks late Thursday. “We want to succeed and we must now check with the parties.”

Earlier in the day, the U.S. and France presented Lebanon with an offer to use UNIFIL to help monitor the Lebanese deployment and Israeli withdrawal. UNIFIL would be beefed up with more troops and given a mandate under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. That means it would have more robust rules of engagement.

The shift was a significant concession because the United States and Israel had previously wanted UNIFIL to play only a minor bridging role in anticipation of a larger, separate multinational force.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying the new proposal being drafted by the U.S. and France “has positive significance that may bring the war to an end.”

Arab leaders said they also want the resolution to ask the U.N. to take control of the Chebaa Farms area along the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Mideast War.

“In all these issues, it’s not secret what is the problem,” Qatar’s Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani said in an interview. “We are talking about the multinational forces, is it under Chapter 7 or not. We are talking about Chebaa under the U.N., and we are talking also about the Lebanese army (and) who will hand over to whom.”

With the Lebanese reaction in hand, U.S. and French diplomats in New York worked late into the night Thursday to come up with new language that would satisfy their own governments back home — as well as Lebanon, Israel and the Hezbollah militias it has been fighting.

Bolton said he believed the Security Council had “a realistic prospect of success.”

“I’ve not at all given up on the prospect that we might yet vote tomorrow,” he said.

There were other signs that long-awaited action by the Security Council might be near. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she was flying to New York to “reinforce” Britain’s efforts to reach agreement on a resolution, calling the situation “urgent” and saying “we need now to complete the task.”

The United States is chiefly concerned that Hezbollah not be allowed to re-infiltrate south Lebanon once a cessation of hostilities goes into effect. Washington has supported Israel’s insistence on staying in southern Lebanon until a robust international force is deployed, which could take weeks or months.


Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this story.